No! Tomoki's spirit recoiled furiously from what he knew now about the impending fate of his friend, Naruto, the Hidden Leaf Village, and all the rest of the world's inhabitants. It's impossible! he raged. We stopped the guei! We stopped them! The very act of singular thought, "I", "we", "us" and "them", caused him to whirl in the afterlife's dreamlike ether, as if he'd been overtaken by unseen vortices and tossed into turbulent waters.

Tomoki's feelings of helplessness and regret dissolved before an overpowering awe as the boy felt himself begin to float, rising buoyantly towards a world of light and murmuring voices. The sense of arrival flooded him, an anxious anticipation of peace at last after so many travails. Even if ruin befell all else, there was nothing more he could do. He'd tried, he'd died, and no one could question his efforts anymore.

A fearful puzzlement then took hold as he stopped short of the goal. The light was there still, beckoning him on, but he came no closer to it nor did it to him.

What is it? Tomoki wondered anxiously; quaking before celestial judgment. What's wrong?

The light solidified into a blinding circle of yellowish-white surrounded by luminous rings of almost equal intensity. Mysteriously, it started to buzz. It flickered once and then again. The next time it did so, Tomoki half-suspected it was because he'd blinked.

Blinked? the genin questioned himself, finding an odd sort of humor in the notion. No, that can't be right.

The noises that echoed around him were more distinct now, sharper from the unintelligible drone they'd been. There was crying, snoring, curses and prayers. There were children, men and women.

'Cause if I just blinked, he followed along – a prisoner of reason, then that would mean that I'm…

A cough shook him then, sending ripples of pain coursing through his body. It was true, he was not a being of spirit anymore (if indeed, he ever was) but of substance – wounded flesh and broken bones. The boy groaned as he noted now the all-too familiar scents of antiseptics and medical unguent that flooded his nostrils, and felt the tight cling of stitches and bandages against his skin.

No…no way! the young ninja objected bitterly, then shuddered as the reality set in – life; life with it's continual struggles, it's pains and disappointments, and all the countless failures. But, he argued to himself, I can't wake up. I was dead...really dead this time! Wasn't I?

Tomoki lay there numb and in shock. It isn't fair! he cried. Tears pooled in his eyes as his senses imposed upon him the extent of his deformed condition, while his memory teased with all that he'd seen and been through. The genin tried to force himself asleep; to at least retreat into a land of painless oblivion, but the murmuring voices around him granted him no peace. Worse still was the giant light that hung over his cot, burning through his sealed eyelids into his cortex and into his conscience.

From a reflex half-remembered, Tomoki tried to form the hand-seals for his Five Elements/Eight Harmonies Jutsu with all its miraculous healing powers, but it was a wasted effort as he should have remembered. Wrappings and sutures bound his movements, and his fingers, having all been broken, were held fast by rigid splints.

Aw…crap, he summed up desolately then tried to rest, being that he had few other options.

A flicker of concern played along the outskirts of the boy's mind. Naruto, he thought as he remembered the last time he saw the always-surprising genin, laying in the shadow of a broken standing-stone.

Tomoki blew out a breath then winced at how wildly nonsensical that sentiment was. Yeah, right, he considered gloomily, as if Naruto needs anyone to look after him, let alone you. He's got all that strength, and the power of the Nine-Tailed Fox. A spike of jealousy surfaced, unbidden. Even without that, he took down three guei…three! Now, just look at you lying here – a living wreck. You can't even die right.

Again Tomoki shut his eyes. His body felt heavy and he was so tired that even remaining conscious felt like a burden too heavy to bear. But sleep did not come. That light was in his eyes and was too big and bright to ignore.

After awhile, the preoccupied patient's brow knitted and a sigh escaped his dry lips. So what are you going to do, Tomoki? he asked himself. Are you really going to drag your cut-up carcass out of this cot and try to find him? The ninja moaned at the stupidity, the sheer vanity, of the idea. "You are, aren't you," he rasped, and this time it was a statement not a question.

After he'd braced himself for the effort, the boy rolled to one side then hissed through clenched teeth as sutures snapped taut across his arms, legs and trunk where Desdemona's razor-sharp monofilament had cut him. Momentum carried his body over so that he straddled the cot's hard, metal edge, with his bandaged cheek mashed against it.

Tomoki rested there for a few minutes to let his racing breath calm and the streaking pains die down to more tolerable levels. Without giving himself too much time to think about it, he let one leg drift gingerly to the floor where it sought then eventually found purchase. In this awkward position he worked it so that he could lower the other leg down, then pushed himself to his feet.

At last he was vertical, but the effort had taken a total commitment. The boy's limbs quaked while the surging flow of blood through his veins and arteries rushed like rivers in his head. Only then did Tomoki discover that his body had forgotten how to maintain itself upright! Seized with panic, the genin yelped as he swayed and wobbled beside his bed like some sort of diminutive mummy, wrapped in bandages and a loose-fitting, pea-green patient's gown.

When at last Tomoki was able to stand, rigidly, with his arms low and outstretched for balance, and his eyes wide, he gasped with relief.

Freed at last from the light's yellow tyranny, Tomoki now looked around in quiet shock. Upon the vast concrete floor on which he stood, a matrix of cots surrounded him in a field of white rectangles. Each was home to a suffering or motionless patient. The leaf-genin's eyes cast around the voluminous space at the metal-sided walls, long-spanning steel bents, and huge, hanging lights.

Some kind of warehouse…the boy realized then took a slow, short step. His tortured flesh objected instantly. Taking a moment to deliberate, Tomoki reckoned that this was a really bad idea. He turned haltingly to settle back on his cot, but was then confronted with the problem of how he would get back down into it without tearing himself to pieces.

You're a real screw-up, the ninja assessed ruefully, winced, then turned back and began to shuffle his way down the aisle. As he cast his gaze around, he noted the fearful expressions on the poor, shocked citizens of Earth Country, and saw injuries that made his seem barely worth mentioning. A guilty pang fell over him. No matter how bad things were, it was no worse than what many others had suffered. All things considered, his survival was nothing less than a miracle.

Swallowing hard and accepting his situation, Tomoki looked down the aisle-way he traveled and saw that it receded into the distance then ended at a pair of gigantic, coiling doors. In the far corner of the immense building an office area boxed off by walls and windows buzzed with activity, and people coming and going. Tomoki's eyes rose with a start as he recognized among the slate-colored, commando-style uniforms of the stone-ninja, the blue and white of Lady Acacia's uchi-deshi.

Things must really be messed up if they've let her come back, it occurred to him with a start as he considered the tumult that must have followed the collapse of Castle Omphalos. His expression set firmly. But she'll know what's going on…and where I can find Naruto.

Tomoki burned with exasperation as he limped stiffly down the aisle. It was taking him forever to negotiate what would normally take him a single, bounding stride! His vision blurred as he listed dizzily and almost blacked out. Forcing himself to hurry, he managed to steer his path toward a white-curtained cubicle then braced himself against its corner post, palming it feebly with splinted hands.

While he rested there, the genin looked again toward the distant office. From its door rushed two stone-ninja: a boy, short, rail-thin and red-headed; followed by a pudgy girl with mousy pig-tails.

Fugo…Tomoki blinked as he remembered the genin, and Reona!

Though the sight of pugnacious Fugo made him grimace unconsciously, he was warmed by the sense of relief he felt that Reona was all right.

The two were arguing, which didn't seem at all unusual. Fugo shouted something at his teammate, stamped his foot then turned and sped off, rushing down the aisle way right past where the bandaged leaf-ninja stood. Tomoki turned his head away just to make sure the red-head didn't recognize him, then turned back as Reona followed.

He'd thought to call out to her, but the kunoichi was already slowing her pace as she approached him then stopped and stared.

"Tomoki?" the girl squeaked uncertainly.

A weak, lop-sided grin crept over the leaf-ninja's face. "Hello again, Reona," greeted Tomoki softly. "I'm surprised you recognized me."

Reona's face went wide with amazement and she made to throw her arms around him but then thought better of it, owing to his condition.

The pair looked at each other, not really knowing what to say, until Tomoki added guiltily: "I think the last time we talked I might have scared you a little. Sorry about that."

The cries and mutters of the patients around them quieted. The constant swinging and banging of the office doors as people came and went, and the buzzing ballasts from the lights above echoed in the stillness.

Reona's expression wriggled for a moment, then she shrugged and offered, "No big deal." She sucked in her lips, fidgeting awkwardly as she stood there. "It's really good to see you…you know, alive and everything."

"Thanks," Tomoki replied with weary earnest, "you too."

Reona smiled, then suddenly her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms. "Just what do you think you're doing walking around?!" she demanded sharply. "You should be resting!"

The leaf-ninja grinned weakly. "Yeah," he agreed, "I was thinking the same thing, but --."

"But nothing!" Reona cut him off. "Whatever it is can wait."

Tomoki shook his head. "I have to find Naruto," he stated but didn't explain why. The girl groaned and rolled her eyes. "You're worried about him?" she piped with disbelief, then attested: "He's fine, Tomoki. They found both of you at dawn today. I've seen him and he's hardly got a scratch…unlike you!"

Tomoki scowled at his own stupidity. It was exactly like he'd figured. Still, he gave her a serious look. "I just…need to talk to him for a minute."

Reona frowned and shook her head. "Well, he is pretty close by," she relented then asked testily, "If I take you to him, will you go back to bed?!"

Tomoki cracked a smile then nodded gratefully. "It's a deal."

The stone-ninja went to his side and the taller boy draped his leaden, bandaged arm over her shoulders. "Tell me," Tomoki said with a pained grunt as they started to walk together. "What's happened since the Castle fell?"

Reona shut her eyes in painful remembrance. "It's bad, Tomoki," said she in a hushed voice. "Most of the senior ninja were killed and all the remaining Shan. A lot of the city's flooded too, and the whole area near the base of the plateau got smashed."

Tomoki's eyes lifted somberly as he remembered the plutonian profile of Castle Omphalos teeter in the rain-lashed darkness then drop away, as if off the edge of the world. To him, the Shan had been a blight on humanity – a dark lineage who'd sought to extend their powers forever into the future though their kekkei-genkai. After four centuries of deaths and rebirths, life had meant little to them, and war had no consequences. They'd all traded their humanity and even their sanity for power.

But for Reona and the rest, Tomoki thought, this is probably like the end of the world. I'm just a visitor here, but for them and all the generations before them, there's never been a time without the Shan in charge.

"I'm sorry, Reona," muttered Tomoki in a hoarse whisper. "I tried to stop it. I really did, but…"

The girl looked up at him. "It's not your fault," she offered resiliently, "I know it was the Empress herself who brought the guei and the storms that destroyed the Castle."

Tomoki looked at her, mute with surprise. She obviously knew more about what had transpired than he'd thought, and accepted it better than he'd credited her. Of course, he remembered, she'd been there with Naruto when they'd dug up his body…but that was the last thing he wanted to talk about.

Humming thoughtfully, Tomoki asked, "So how are you all getting along with the uchi-deshi?"

Reona looked up at him and grinned. "Yeah, Lady Acacia brought them," she explained. "They're really amazing, her, Sebellius and the rest. They've worked non-stop to drain the city, built earthworks to contain the rivers, then took over a bunch of places like this to use as hospitals and shelters."

"Wow," muttered Tomoki, impressed. "I can't believe whosever in charge now would ask her for help."

"No one's in charge, really," Reona clarified, and the boy heard the anxiety in her voice. "She came on her own."

"How did she know?"

"I…I told her, the same night the Castle fell."

Tomoki winced as his foot caught on an uneven joint. "You went to her?" he asked incredulously.

Reona's eyes fell. "Well, it was pretty scary what happened to you and everything!" the girl began defensively, "after Desdemona turned you into a guei. And Naruto, he's…he went and t-turned into some kind of werewolf or something, and then --." Her voice tightened. "Sensei got sent to the frontier, and I didn't think Uiko would know what to do. I didn't know where else to go or who to tell, so I…"

"Went to Lady Acacia's cottage," Tomoki finished for her, nodded, then commented reassuringly, "That was a smart call, Reona."

"Thanks," she said with a sniffle, then looked off distantly. "She's really incredible, Lady Acacia, I mean. I didn't know anyone knew jutsus like that – jutsus that control the elements."

Tomoki gave her a wry grin as he recalled his brief time with the Princess in Exile. "I can't say I'm too surprised."

The pair stopped before another cubicle partitioned by white curtains. "This is it," said Reona a little sadly as she gestured toward it.

Tomoki moved to enter, then noticed the girl's demeanor and turned back to her. "Aren't you coming?"

The kunoichi shook her head. "I got to catch up to that stupid Fugo," she said. "We're off to get more supplies from the dispensary."

"Oh," said Tomoki worriedly. "I hope I didn't set you back."

"Nah," said Reona. "It's ok. I've got my Ghost-Walk Jutsu, remember?"

Tomoki nodded. "Right," he agreed. "How could I forget? Thanks again, Reona."

"Anytime," she granted cheerily, then put her fingers together in a seal and vanished in a puff of smoke.

Tomoki grinned, then slipped through the curtains.

Once inside, he was brought up short by the sight of a motionless patient who lay on a cot, nude but for a cloth draped over his hips. It was a boy, barely older than Tomoki himself and racehorse lean, whose chest, legs and face sprouted long acupuncture needles which smoldered incense at their tips and swayed like reeds in the air's unfelt movements. Trails of the incense's fragrant smoke drifted upward in ghostly swirls.

Remembering how he occasionally barged in on his mentor, Ichi, when he was trying to treat a customer, Tomoki paused then moved to withdraw before it occurred to him that this motionless figure was Naruto.

Tomoki's disquieted eyes widened as he approached the blond genin's bedside then looked down into his slack, distressed face. It was no wonder he hadn't recognized him at first. Though the conditioned air was temperate, Naruto's features were glazed in cold sweat. His skin, normally a healthy peach, was cadaverous and grey.

Didn't Reona say that Naruto was ok? Tomoki puzzled then gulped hard as he paced along Naruto's body and reached a splinted finger toward his belly and the spiraling, black seal inscribed upon it like a tattoo. The bandaged leaf-ninja stared, having never seen it before, yet he'd known for awhile that it existed.

"Tomoki?" a ragged, lilting-accented voice called to him, and the startled ninja turned slowly toward a tall, black man dressed in the baggy blue and white uniform of Lady Acacia's students.

"Sebellius," the boy greeted quietly in reply, then slumped with relief.

The uchi-deshi knitted his brow. His eyes were red and tired, and his chin was coarse and unshaven. "What on earth are you doing out of bed, child? As it is, our medics are entirely at a loss as to how you survived exsanguination and then burial."

Tomoki looked up at the man, coughed dryly, then managed a clever smile. "Well it's way harder than it looks," he quipped.

The tall ninja gaped blankly at the boy's remark, then glared. "None of it!" he declared sternly in reply and waved his long arms. "I'm taking you back to your cot at once."

Tomoki chuckled at Sebellius' maternal reaction then turned serious. "No, wait, please," the leaf-genin prevailed and hobbled back towards Naruto, with his concern plain on his face. "How is he?"

Sebellius frowned. "Not good, I'm sad to say," the man reported flatly. "It doesn't look like he'll make it."

For a moment, Tomoki stared and said nothing. "What?" he gasped in disbelief.

"I'm sorry, Tomoki. He was in a terrible battle, and was then without food or shelter for almost three days in the cold and rain."

The genin shook his head slowly. "But…," Tomoki mumbled as he stared. "He's been through so much worse, a lot worse than that. I just don't understand how…" The leaf-genin's eyes roamed over his friend's afflicted form. Only when he shut them did he see the pattern in the array of needles set into Naruto's skin, stimulating or slowing the rivers of chakra that flowed through his body, and knew that something was wrong.

Tomoki was not an expert in acupuncture by any means, but certainly knew the basics from all the times Ichi had treated him. This array would not heal Naruto. It would not, and was not intended to. It leaked the flow of his energy outward, slowly draining the yellow-haired genin of life like air from a punctured tire.

The harsh realization crashed through Tomoki's thoughts. Heat rose like a prickly fire across his flushed, young brow as he fought back waves of horror and disbelief. Not knowing at that moment what to do, the leaf-genin swallowed hard and bit at his cracked lips, then turned slowly toward the towering ninja who looked back at him with an expression of perfect inscrutability.

"I know I haven't known you very long, Sebellius…but I kind of got the idea that you were a good guy," Tomoki managed to say with only a slight strain permeating his quavering voice. "So would you mind telling why you're trying to murder my friend?"

The uchi-deshi's gaze rose. "I was hoping you would sleep through it."

Tomoki startled at his cool admission. "Why?!" he cried, this time unable to hide the pain he felt. "I mean, what did he do?" A chilling thought occurred to the boy. His eyes widened as his breath caught in his chest. "Where's Lady Acacia? he hissed. "Did she tell you to kill Naruto?!"
The man shook his head firmly. "She knows nothing of this," Sebellius intoned. "She has been, these last three days and nights in the city, toiling tirelessly to contain the waters, clear the wreckage and save as many people as she can…along with the rest of us." He gestured toward the prostrate Naruto. "I wish for you to understand that it is not from hatred or to right some wrong that I've done this," the uchi-deshi explained. It is because your friend is home to a great evil."

"Oh," said Tomoki reflectively, "that again."

Though disconcerted by the young ninja's reaction, Sebellius was undeterred. "There's no way you can understand…the sort of monster contained by that seal on his stomach."

The genin blinked. "Sebellius," he replied harshly, "I know exactly 'what sort of monster'. I've stood in its presence; it's held me in its jaws. So don't tell me what I know and what I don't." Tomoki paced slowly, as much as he was able to, then continued in a softer, more thoughtful voice, "I've had this conversation before too, about Naruto, with another who feared the demon imprisoned inside him. We kind of caused each other a lot of trouble. It was my fault too, in part…I just couldn't explain it right."

"Explain?" queried Sebellius doubtfully. "What sort of explanation could there be?"
"I know what you must be thinking," Tomoki offered grimly. "If I'm not afraid, then I don't understand. Well, I was definitely afraid when I saw the Nine-Tailed Fox." He looked up at the ninja, accusing him bitterly with his eyes. "But you only know half the story, and knowing half the story about anything is worse than not knowing anything about it at all."

Sebellius gave him a cautious, obliging glance, lowered his lean frame and sat on an empty cot, then steepled his fingers – a gesture than granted the boy leave to finish what he had to say.

Tomoki tensed for a moment. Was the Princess in Exile's senior-most student really open-minded enough to hear him out, or was he just humoring him? Looking at Sebellius, the boy really couldn't tell. "The story starts thirteen years ago," Tomoki began, a little off-balance, "when the Nine-Tailed Fox attacked and almost destroyed the Hidden Leaf Village. The destruction was almost total and there was great loss of life. Everything would have been lost if not for our Fourth Hokage who sealed the demon inside Naruto, who was then just a baby, using a jutsu that's way beyond anything I can understand."

Tomoki stole a glance at Naruto and tried to judge how long his friend had left. Did Naruto's life or death really depend on his ability to make a judgment made long ago make sense? The young ninja frowned, then weighed what his chances were of pulling out some of those needles before Sebellius put a stop to it. None of the answers he came to were very reassuring.

"I'm not supposed to know any of this," Tomoki admitted as he continued. "The Third Hokage, Sarutobi, set forth an edict that no one was to speak of what happened that day. But really," he commented with a smirk, "telling people not to talk? You might as well tell them not to breath. It wasn't hard for me to find out what I wanted after I knew what to look for."

Tomoki ceased his pacing and stopped, interposing himself between Naruto and his killer, though the genin recognized that the gesture did nothing but make him feel a little better.

With his chin rested against his still-steepled fingers, Sebellius opined, "It seems to me that your Fourth was a cruel and wicked man for doing such a terrible thing to an infant. If such a seal is possible, then why not imprison this Fox-Demon in stone or iron…something that endures better than flesh and bone? Why curse a child?"

Tomoki nodded. "I had the same thought."

"It was a mistake then, or a perverse joke."

"No," the genin countered abruptly, "and that was the part I didn't understand either. The Fourth knew what he was dealing with – a creature that revels in death and blood, whose appearance announces upheaval; an elemental evil that can never be killed or contained for very long."

Sebellius blinked and shook his head. "I don't know why you told me all that. I am now more convinced than ever that I am doing the right thing."

Tomoki quaked in frustration. "I'm not finished yet!" he stammered, realizing too late that losing his temper was probably a bad idea. "Even if you did kill the Demon, the energies that give it its power would continue on. They're like water. You can splash and sweep a puddle away, but the water hasn't been destroyed. It's seeped into the ground or evaporated into the air, and will reform before too long. The part I didn't understand," Tomoki continued in a measured tone, "is that the only real, lasting way to keep the Nine-Tailed Fox, or something else just as bad, from reappearing and again devastating humanity…is to transform it."

The ninja cocked a curious eye toward him. "By putting it into a person?" he ventured skeptically.

"Yes, exactly," the boy jumped to explain, gushing eagerly, "and in that way share his hopes and dreams, to know love and loss. In that way the Nine-Tailed Fox will become human, just a little bit…whether it knows it or not or wants to or not!" Tomoki's brow furrowed worriedly as he lost track of what he was going to say, but then the words came back to him – the same words that had made him understand in the first place; a quotation taken from the late, greatest, master-of-all-masters, Jun Fan Lee. "'Now you put water in a cup,'" he intoned, "'it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it into a teapot it becomes the teapot.'"

Tomoki's face lit with a smile, but it quickly faded. To him it made perfect sense, but had he convinced Sebellius? "Being that vessel intended to shape the Nine-Tailed Fox is," the genin continued hesitantly, "maybe the hardest, most important duty anyone has ever undertaken, and Naruto never had any choice but to accept it." He turned toward the needle-bristled Naruto, trembled, then clenched his jaw. "I haven't known him that long, but I can tell you that no one could have picked anyone better for the job."

When Tomoki turned back to Sebellius, his eyes were set with defiance. "I don't know if anything I've said has gotten through, but there's something else you might think about if it matters to you," his voice broke with emotion. "Naruto's my friend, and that's reason enough why he's important to me. And I'm definitely not going to stand by and do nothing while you kill him."

Sebellius leaned forward then stood, rising up to his full, imposing height.

Calculations whirled through Tomoki's trained mind: with his fingers broken, he could not perform jutsu; he had no weapons; he was weak from previous injuries, and any sudden movement would tear his sutures. Sebellius, his opponent, was much bigger and stronger, had a substantial reach advantage, was in full health, and was at least jonin-level in terms of his training.

Unlike so many others in his class at the academy, Tomoki judged in that instant, he had nothing to fall back on. Sasuke could use his sharingan to see a hidden weakness. Shikamaru could undoubtedly think up some masterful strategy. Shino had his bugs, and Naruto… Tomoki considered his friend's current predicament then thought -- Well, I guess nothing's an answer for everything.

The boy felt within himself for any lingering remnant of the monstrous power he'd wielded as a guei, but found nothing. "You know, Sebellius," he blurted suddenly, and not even he knew what he was about to say, "in these last couple of days I've watched an Empress die, a castle crumble, and a great house fall from power. I've killed four ghosts, was one myself, and came back from the dead. I know I look like I've got nothing left, but the truth is," the genin stated as he stepped forward and stared up at the man, "I haven't even started yet!"

My God, what did I just say?! thought Tomoki, but it was too late to back down now.

Sebellius' dark, bloodshot eyes glared down then widened as he started to snicker. After only a few moments, he turned away with a hand clasped over his stomach. "Ok," said Sebellius, unable to contain his laughter. "Ok, little fellow…I'll tell you this – I never knew your Fourth Hokage, and don't know him," he gestured at the prone Naruto, "or you very well. It's hard to say if I should trust you over something as important as this."

Sweat beaded on Tomoki's forehead. If Sebellius was unconvinced by his explanation, and called his bluff, there wasn't a single thing he could do to stop him.

"Tomoki," the uchi-deshi asked him pointedly, "can you look me in the eye and say that you are certain of your conclusion?"

"Yes, Sebellius," Tomoki stated at once, "absolutely certain."

"Well, I don't know what other answer I expected," Sebellius replied with a frown. "Still, I think that you are a 'good guy' too. And I'm very tired, and I know it's bad to make decisions when you're tired and have many other things on your mind. Very well, Tomoki."

Relief gushed over Tomoki's face. "Really?" he squeaked as the tall student went to Naruto's side and began to pluck the needles out. "Thank you, Sebellius."

"Now what of you?" the man asked him. "Will you not rest?"

"Nah," declined Tomoki graciously. "I'll stick around 'till he wakes up. It's the least I can do."

The tall man ceased his ministrations, smiled and looked down at the boy. "It is difficult to trust someone you don't know, isn't it, for you as well as me. Ha, now you know how it feels."

"Huh?" said Tomoki with a blank expression. "Oh, no, it's not that."

Sebellius turned and stood before him, stooped and lifted him up then lowered him gently onto the empty cot. "I promise you," he said, "he'll still be here when you awake. But if what you told me turns out to be a lie, I shall be very, very cross with you."

This time, Tomoki realized he was awake and conscious before his eyes were even open. He chose to keep them shut. Was he really ready to find out if Sebellius had kept his word? What would he do if he hadn't – give up yet another chapter of his life to bloody revenge? In mere moments the tension got to be too much and he opened his eyes.

Naruto Uzumaki sat beside him, half-asleep and slumped back in a chair. He looked to be deep in thought and far from his normal energetic self, but he was alive…still definitely alive!

Hardly believing his eyes as a smile broke over his face, Tomoki slowly pushed himself up.

Naruto, alerted by his movement, turned toward him in amazement; his sapphire eyes shining, a beatific smile lighting his whisker-marked face.

"Hi --," Tomoki started to say, but before he could get the word out, Naruto threw his arms around him and hugged him close. Bandages pulled and sutures tugged like a thousand cats' claws in the genin's skin, but he didn't care. There was nothing he could lose now that wouldn't be more than made up for by this moment, when his friend seemed more solid, warm and real than anything he'd felt before.

As they embraced, Tomoki felt Naruto's cheek move like he was trying to say something. He waited curiously, with his splinted hands resting tightly against the genin's orange back.

"I'm…," Naruto mumbled at last, forcing the words, but then stopped.

I'm…what? Tomoki wondered.

"I'm…really sorry I hit you, Tomoki," the blond ninja blurted suddenly, as if they were the most important words ever spoken.

Tomoki tried hard to remember what Naruto might be talking about but nothing came to mind. "Uh…," he started tentatively, "it's ok, Naruto. It's ok."

One of the white curtains that enclosed them rustled, and Sebellius entered.

Naruto relaxed his hold as did Tomoki, whereupon the tall uchi-deshi smiled reluctantly then said, "Lady Acacia would like to speak with you, if you are both well enough."

Tomoki studied the man's expression, searching for anything related to the fateful decision he'd made just hours ago at the most but Sebellius let nothing obvious show through. The leaf-genin then answered his friend's concerned look with a nod, and let Naruto help him to his feet. Together, they followed Sebellius out into the warehouse-turned-hospice, and then towards the expansive office that occupied its corner.

"What's she want with us?" asked Naruto bluntly of the tall man's back.

Sebellius shrugged. "If I knew, I would tell you," he answered with a familiar air. "But Lady Acacia has been dealing with many different matters this morning, and only just now asked that I bring you."

Naruto grumbled suspiciously, making Tomoki wonder if he suspected anything.

Though they went slowly, on Tomoki's behalf, they arrived soon enough at the warehouse's office. Sebellius held the dented metal door open for the two genin, then slipped in front of them to guide them through a lobby, down a short hallway, and into a larger room that bustled with people – citizens of Earth Country, workmen, stone-ninja, and the Princess in Exile's students.

Behind a big folding-table topped with a collage of paper, letters and forms sat Lady Acacia herself. There was little about her that reminded the two genin of their previous encounter. Her cheeks were slack, her hair was tangled and unwashed, and dark bags hung under her eyes. She hadn't eaten or slept in days, and was trying to run her body off chakra, which was exceedingly dangerous if done for too long. Despite all that, Tomoki felt somehow reassured by her presence.

She peered through the crowd toward them, then startled with alarm. "Ok, everybody!" the Princess in Exile announced. "Give me some space; I need ten minutes."

With that, everyone slowed to a stop then filed out of the room, leaving her, Sebellius, the rest of her senior students, and the two leaf-ninja.

Sebellius pulled up two chairs, and Naruto guided Tomoki down into one of them and sat in the other.

Lady Acacia looked briefly at Naruto then stared hard at Tomoki, blinked, then stared again as she assessed the extent of his wounds. "I heard you were alive," she said wearily, "but didn't think to ask about your condition. Now I'm kind of glad I didn't." Acacia took a gulp from a big mug which had left its ring on some papers, groaned, then smiled empathetically. "How are you feeling, Tomoki?" she asked.

Tomoki thought for a second. "Alive," he answered straightforwardly.

"That's good," said Acacia, who looked at them meaningfully. "You know, it seems to me that I told you something like 'nothing good awaited you in the Village Hidden Among the Stones'. I'd say, I called that one right."

The genin nodded quietly.

Naruto frowned, his eyes narrowed to slits. "Look, Lady," he asked, "what's this all about?"

The Princess blinked slowly. "In short," she stated, "your repatriation."

"My what?!" barked Naruto aghast.

"We're going home, Naruto," Tomoki translated. "Home."

The mood their brief conversation created changed then as the front door swung open suddenly and a pair of angry, booted footsteps stormed down the hall.

"Oh, well isn't this nice?!" seethed Catullus upon his arrival. "Got all the unusual suspects together in one room." The stone-chunin's fiery eyes swept around, then he pointed squarely at the two leaf-ninja. "You!" he hissed and rushed toward them, but Sebellius headed him off.

For several long moments the air thickened with tension as the two traded opposing expressions: Catullus' implacable; Sebellius' unassailable.

"Out of my way, big man," commanded the stone-ninja who lowered his finger like the head of a pike toward Tomoki and Naruto. "I got me a hell of a lot of questions to ask, and it starts with them."

"Oh," the tall uchi-deshi remarked absently. "What sort of questions?"

"Like what the f--- happened to my country?!" Catullus shouted up at him. "Yeah, that's a good place to start!"

The dark-skinned ninja grunted. "Do you really imagine it was those two who destroyed Castle Omphalos?" he asked gently, almost rhetorically, then lowered his gaze. "It seems unlikely to me. Maybe you should pick on someone…your own size."

"I'll pick on anyone I feel like!" he answered immediately, apparently unconcerned about the presence of the dozen or so other senior uchi-deshi, all dressed in blue and white.

Lady Acacia broke in tiredly. "Children, please," she began. "If you're intent on marking your territories, do it somewhere else…you're stinking up the place."

"Oh!" chortled Catullus, in a voice that spurted sarcasm. "Look who's decided to chime in – it's the Princess in Exile, except you're not in exile anymore, are you? I guess not because you're walking around downtown Iwagakure like you own the f---ing place!"

"Catullus," sneered Sebellius, "you are a pig. Watch your mouth! Lady Acacia's been working nonstop all through the days and nights to lift away mountains of rubble and coax the rivers into a manageable state. You should be grateful to her and all of us!"

The chunin's eyes went wide. "D…did you say 'grateful'? This is a rebellion!" he roared. "A coup! The city's been overtaken by a private militia with an outlaw for its leader!" the man spat and pointed accusingly at Acacia.

The Princess looked up at him from behind her table with an expression of strained tolerance. "Your Tsuchikage is dead," she reminded him, "so is your Empress. The Shan are no more. All your highest-ranking jonin, your generals and most of your ninja are in the field, at war. Of those few who are left after the Castle's collapse, you are highest-ranking amongst them. At least, there are no others who have stepped forward to present themselves. The only reason we're in your city at all is because the place was drowning and lawless."

"So you're the new law, is that right?" Catullus glared at Acacia. "Are you our new Tsuchikage?!"

Everyone's eyes drifted toward her. "No," she insisted then rubbed her bleary eyes.

"Well then," Catullus went on. "If that's true, then you won't mind if I take you into custody." He took a step toward her then halted as her disciples moved to intervene. "Oh, what?! What?" he challenged. "Is there a problem?!"

"No, Catullus," said Acacia, who rose from her folding chair and walked around the table toward him. "You're right. I have no legitimate claim to power here." She looked at her surprised disciples, then back to the man. "Even if I did, I suppose, if I refused to accept the law's judgment then I'd have little right to dispense it. If you wish, you may arrest me. Neither I nor any of my students will stop you."

Catullus' expression went blank for a moment, as even he was surprised by her acquiescence, then set determinedly.

"Stop being so stupid!" enunciated Naruto suddenly, who came to his feet. "Catullus, you've got to be smarter than this. You know Acacia didn't have to come; she could've let you all drown. Are you really going to let some law written by people who aren't here anymore and weren't much good to begin with stop you from doing the right thing?"

The chunin gaped, frozen and inflamed, while Naruto now rounded on Lady Acacia. "And you! Oh, sure, you're all about the letter of the law, aren't you?! Like Empress Desdemona ever thought you'd live in a mansion with an army of ninja at your command when all she'd granted you was a cottage and a few live-in students. Yeah, it must be nice to have a title, 'Princess in Exile', with all the glory and none of the responsibilities."

Catullus, Acacia and everyone else gazed at Naruto, amazed, impressed or appalled by the blond boy's brash temerity. Tomoki's jaw fell open, knowing he'd be irate with his friend's almost-expected antics, if the genin had not just given voice to the plain truth.

In any case, Naruto hadn't finished. "Yeah, right," he went on sharply in his gravelly tenor, "now that the going's tough you're going to step aside and force this idiot to make the decisions for you?" He whipped his finger toward Catullus. "Please, Lady, if you don't have the balls for the big job then just say so! But don't give us this 'respect for the law' stuff, 'cause it's garbage."

Tomoki and the whole rest of the room froze, flat-lined by the young ninja's tirade. But what he'd said had cut to the bone, and the way he'd said it was not as a petulant child, but as a man who saw clearly, and cared deeply. Tomoki stared at his friend, marveling at how he'd deepened over so short a time. His eyes swiveled toward the others, Catullus and Lady Acacia. Hard truth was often not well-received.

"Well…there it is," remarked Acacia absently, then said with a smile: "Please, Naruto, tell us what you really think." The blond almost shook with anger, no, that wasn't it exactly, disappointment, as the woman continued, "But I am sorry to fall short of your expectations." She laughed lightly and gave him a charitable smile. "And I'm sure that, to a boy who wants to be Hokage so badly, it seems almost…inconceivable that anyone would refuse the reigns of power when opportunity presents them."

The Princess' soft words filled the room like organ music in a cathedral. Everyone knew that something greatly important was being decided, and all eyes were upon her. "I'm sorry," she said, "but Tsuchikage is a mantle I cannot take up."

Naruto's face fell as he shook his head. "It's not me you should worry about. What about all those people laying out there in the hospital, all the soldiers off fighting a four-hundred year long war!?" he argued.

Acacia drew in a breath but looked away, torn and uncertain.

"Maybe you're thinking to yourself: why me?" Tomoki broke in unexpectedly, reciting as if to himself. His introspective tone fortified the silence. "Why not send somebody bigger, stronger, older or more experienced? My answer to that is: why not you? If you have survived so far, then you must be doing something right. Then, finally I would tell you that I've been around for a long, long time and can say with some certainty that we could do worse."

Catullus scoffed, looked around and muttered: "What the hell's that supposed --."

"No, wait," said Acacia curiously as she turned toward the genin. "Who told you that, Tomoki?"

The boy looked up from where he sat. "The one who really sent us here."

The weary Princess in Exile closed her eyes then turned away, and raised a hand to her cheek. All eyes were still on her as she started to chuckle. "You two are quite a pair," she remarked, "one pushes while the other pulls." The woman drew a contemplative breath. "I thought I was pretty clever when I tricked you back at my cottage, but I see now that it was not I who held the grasping end of the leash. Your masters are angels…or devils, terrible spirits either way," she intoned.

Lady Acacia turned then to the stone-ninja, who fought to keep a lid on his temper and his confusion. "Catullus," the woman explained, "although I did indeed enjoy my title and its many benefits, I never in my life craved power. I could see for myself that using it properly was a difficult art. However, word of the Castle's destruction and the death of the Shan dynasty will not take long to reach our armies in the field, or the ears of our many enemies." The stone-ninja gave her a pained look, but nodded that he accepted what she said as valid. "There is no leadership here," continued the Princess in Exile. "I will not insist that I fill that void, but there needs to be someone."

"Lady Acacia, our Second Tsuchikage," muttered Catullus sourly. "It may take me some time to warm up to the idea."


"I suppose I could, maybe, agree to a probationary period?" suggested the ninja coyly.

Acacia gave him a tentative glance. "I think that's fair."

"Good, you've got fifteen minutes to impress me," Catullus informed her tersely as he looked down at his watch, "Go."

The woman grinned confidently in the face of his unexpected challenge. "First thing," she began in stride, "send word to all the legions a-field and apprise them of the situation here. They are to cease hostilities and withdraw as soon as practicable to defensive positions. The commanders are to use their discretion to minimize losses.

"Second: inform the leaderships of our adversaries, especially that of the River Lands, that peace is at hand if they want it. If not then, despite whatever it may cost us, I will pursue our four-hundred year long war to its bitter conclusion."

The interim Tsuchikage paced back toward her table then turned to address her disciples. "I'm sorry, my students, that it is you I have to send," she offered, and managed to sound calm about it though it was clear that it took an effort. "It's very dangerous work, I don't have to explain. I never expected to have to send you on such an undertaking…I'll just have to hope that I've trained you well. Of course, I never expected to be Tsuchikage either, even if it's just for fifteen minutes," said Acacia with a forced, flamboyant grin, and a flash of her old humor which brought smiles to the faces of her disciples. She cocked her head and cast a look then at her overseer. "Catullus, how am I doing so far?"

The man grimaced as he leveled his eyes, raised his palm level with the floor then rocked it back and forth.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Lady Acacia acknowledged. "Third thing," she began then cut herself a sheet of paper, brought forth an inkwell and brush then sat again at her table. "I have some major explanations to issue in regards to the abduction and subsequent abuse of two of the Hidden Leaf Village's ninja." Catullus looked at Naruto and then Tomoki worriedly, then rolled his tongue along the inside of his cheek as Acacia continued, "I'd be very surprised if their armies are not already on the march here. Such an invasion would be somewhat inconvenient, considering how our city is now, basically, undefended and all." She looked again to Catullus. "Impressed yet?"

The dour chunin dropped his watch hand then shut his eyes. "History will curse me for this," he growled obliquely, turned, then left the room.

Lady Acacia sighed as she watched him go. "You and me both, maybe."

"Your Hokage," she asked the two genin. "What is his name?"

"Sarutobi," Naruto answered obligingly as a satisfied grin dawned on his face. "But you don't have to worry about him. He's super-nice, for an old guy."

Tomoki added glumly, "Seriously, Lady Acacia, that was great the way you got through to Catullus, but Naruto's fine, and I doubt the Hokage even knows my name."

The former Princess in Exile set aside her brush and looked at the bandaged boy reprovingly. "I have not had the opportunity to converse with all my students either, Tomoki. But that should not suggest that I would be indifferent if somebody kidnapped and tortured a couple of them." Lady Acacia, the new Tsuchikage, looked at the two genin, took in Tomoki's horrific appearance then set back to work. "I'd better lay this on thick."

In the shadow of the great monument to the Four Hokages, whose stone visages looked down upon the Hidden Leaf Village, Naruto and Tomoki waited. Naruto, though unusually calm, seemed like his normal self. Even his singular, orange outfit, jacket and pants, had been patched and laundered, and seemed little worse for wear. Tomoki, to the contrary, remained substantially bandaged, with his fingers splinted and with a dressing taped to his cheek. Being that his usual clothes had been ruined beyond repair, he wore a baggy blue and white uniform whose style and color meant nothing here. Cradled in one arm was a sturdy, leather scroll-case. Within it were a letter of introduction from Lady Acacia, an elaborate explanation and apology for Naruto and Tomoki's abduction and mistreatment, and then an official declaration of amity and respect toward Fire Country and the Hidden Leaf Village on behalf of Earth Country and the Village Hidden Among the Stones.

Before the two genin, a great plaza swept that overlooked a valley below. The Hokage, with who they wished an audience, looked up fondly at the towering monument with his hands rested on the guardrail, then turned to address a class of academy students – a score of little kids who sat cross-legged as they gazed at him. Their teacher, Iruka-sensei, stood nearby with a smile on his face and his hands clasped behind him. He looked more than happy to defer to the great ninja on this chance occasion that he and they should be here at the same time.

It had only been a few minutes since Naruto and Tomoki appeared at the outskirts of the city from a blur of color and swirling lights, accompanied by Reona Sato, a kunoichi of the Village Hidden Among the Stones. Though the long journey by means of her Ghost-Walk Jutsu taxed her, she'd been more than happy to do it – a solo 'C' class mission assigned to her by the new Tsuchikage. It was quite an honor. Naruto had congratulated her in his own generous, expansive way, while the pensive Tomoki nodded and smiled in agreement. Only at the end did he call her back and the two hugged their goodbyes.

As the two ninja waited now for their Hokage, it was Tomoki who squirmed uncomfortably in his gifted, uchi-deshi's uniform, while Naruto stood with a thoughtful expression on his face.

"What's wrong, Tomoki?" asked Naruto at last.

The other boy closed his eyes. "I can't do this," he mumbled.

"What are you talking about?" The blond genin's eyes rose. "Do what?"

"This!" explained Tomoki emphatically as if it should be obvious.

Naruto frowned, looked out at the Hokage, Iruka-sensei, and all the little kids. "What's there to do? All you gotta do is hand off those scrolls," he said and put his hands on his hips. "What's the problem?"

"I…I don't really think you'll understand." Tomoki shook his closely-cropped head. "It's like I've already seen what's going to happen – like a memory, though it hasn't happened yet. Don't look at me like that! Just listen, will you." He cast his eyes toward the other side of the plaza where the two ninja stood: one elderly and regal, in a wide, red and white hat, and robes of flowing white; the other, a youthful chunin in a grey, multi-pocketed vest worn over a blue uniform. "You see Iruka-sensei there and the Hokage, right?" Tomoki ventured. "Right now, the Hokage's all wrapped up in what he's saying to the kids. Iruka-sensei's following along too and so neither of them has noticed us. But soon, any time now, he'll look up and see us standing over here waiting." The bandaged genin's dull, brown eyes glanced momentarily into Naruto's brilliant blue, then darted away.

"Ok," Naruto obligingly accepted, "I really don't see how you think you know all that. So then what?"

"He notices you first," Tomoki continued in a grumbling voice. "No big surprise being that you're highway-cone orange, but he likes you too, and smiles when he sees how patient you're being. Then he glances at me and wonders who I am for a second, 'cause I look like an advertisement for medical supplies or something. He looks at my weird clothes, my scroll case, then finally my face before he finally recognizes me.

"Then he gets really curious," Tomoki described. "His eyes get big and you can tell that he's worried at what this is all about, so he turns to Lord Hokage but he's too polite to interrupt him when he's having this nice conversation with the kids. And he really is too, you know, they're really sharing a moment. Then --," Tomoki broke off and looked away. "You don't believe any of this, do you," he stated somberly.

"I believe you enough to keep listening," Naruto ventured. "But I still don't get why you can't give him those scrolls."

"I guess I can't blame you for that," said Tomoki who shifted uncomfortably. "I might as well finish -- After awhile, the Hokage wraps things up and turns back to look at the monuments with this really, and I can't quite describe it, powerful expression on his face. Iruka waits a little bit then taps his shoulder and lets him know about us. Lord Hokage then turns around and looks hard. He's squinting, because his eyesight isn't good at this distance for making out faces. He straightens up and waves us over."

Naruto glanced again at the Hokage, who smiled as he bantered with the children.

"This is the part I can't do, Naruto," explained Tomoki in a strained voice. ""Cause you see, then I'm supposed to go over there, a student he doesn't remember except maybe as the guy who got crushed during the chunin exams, to give him a message he wasn't expecting from a woman he's never met, and tell him a story he won't believe." His splinted hands trembled while his brow furrowed seriously. "I shouldn't have to do that, Naruto, and I won't!" Tomoki hissed to keep himself from shouting. "I'm done! That's it!"

"Come on, Tomoki," soothed Naruto who rocked on his heels and put his hands in his pockets. "Get a grip. It's not that bad."

"It doesn't have to be!" the genin erupted back. "Don't you get it? I have nothing left. I'm not strong like you. Look at you – not a scratch! Everything you go through, no matter how terrible, only makes you stronger." Tomoki looked at the ground, not wanting Naruto to see him in such a sloppy state. "I'm not stronger. I'm worn out…I feel like what I've lost can never be replaced. And I mean more than just my clothes, my swords, and my f-fingers."

The warm wind blew softly, carrying mellow laughter from where Konoha's children joked with their Hokage.

"I…I've done a lot in the name of trying to do the right thing; trying to make up for a life spent mostly on getting revenge. But I can't do it anymore," Tomoki said and lifted the scroll for Naruto to take.

Naruto looked down at the package from Lady Acacia, then into Tomoki's eyes as he pushed it away. "Sure you can," he said simply.

"What? No, Naruto --," Tomoki started, but was cut off.

"You're stronger than you know," the blond reassured, then his sympathetic face bloomed into a ridiculous grin. "After all, you're my friend, and I know that can't be easy, right?"

"I…," Tomoki stammered at the unexpected question, his expression searching, "right."

"So go and tell your story," Naruto advised. "You should be proud, even if the Hokage doesn't know your name. Besides, maybe it really was him and not the qi-lin who sent you on this mission in the first place. Don't you want to know?"

Tomoki's eyes widened then fell. "A little," he conceded weakly and shrugged.

"Good," the blond piped, "because…we're on!"

"Huh?" Tomoki looked up. At that very moment across the plaza, Iruka-sensei cast the two genin an anxious glance as he tapped the Hokage gently on back and said something to him. The old ninja lord turned to look at them, narrowing his eyes as he tried to focus, then straightened and gestured for them to approach.

Naruto rested his palm between Tomoki's shoulder blades then shoved, sending him lurching forward. Though he stumbled and cast a nasty look at the still-grinning blond, he continued to walk. Only when the bandaged genin was half-way there did he raise his head to look. His glance swept past the academy students, whose puzzled, wide-eyed faces turned to follow him.

Beyond and above the figures that waited for him: his lord, the Hokage; and his sensei, Iruka; the imposing visages of four Hokages looked down. Sunlight streamed over their stone features in diaphanous veils, onto the rooftops and through the green tree canopies below.

Even when Tomoki's slow pace had carried him close to the two men, so close that he stood between their shadows, he would not look up for fear of what he might see in their eyes. Thoughts filled his head as everything that had happened to him in the last few days fought for position.

After a few moments, he came to a resolution – inexpressible yet acceptable. A grin crept over the boy's troubled face as he heard Naruto's eager footsteps follow, rushing to join him. Maybe it didn't matter what they thought, as much as he thought it did. Until his final day, he would only have himself to answer to.

Go on and look, Tomoki urged himself as his eyes rose uncertainly to meet those of the Lord Hokage's. At that moment he was strong enough that if all he found there was the blank look of someone who didn't remember him, someone he'd never made an impression on, and someone entirely indifferent to his existence, it would not destroy him. He was strong enough so that if he found instead eyes that were warm and brimming with humanity, he could cry unashamed and be thankful.

Who had sent him on this mission in the first place, the Hokage, or the qi-lin? Even if the Hokage answered him, would he ever know for sure? Maybe the difference was not as clear cut as he'd thought. Every life influences every other, and none were unimportant no matter how fleeting or remote. So if he looked into the Hokage's eyes and found tunnels infinitely-deep, yielding vistas into forever, Tomoki would simply smile and nod. After all, we were all servants in heaven's court.

The End.

Hi, everybody who made it this far, all the way to the end. Thanks so much for reading. What did you think?

This was kind of a weird one as Naruto fanfiction goes, and was inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe (not to name-drop) short story The Fall of the House of Usher. I like E.A.P., but it's more exciting with ninja in it, don't you think? ;)